The Age of Simulation?

By | June 20, 2009

Alvis Brigis says that it’s upon us

It’s particularly interesting to observe the web trending toward advanced simulation. As I noted above, many of the web’s most valuable properties are rooted in super-simulations – massive bodies of structured data that can be viewed as a whole or sub-sections. It is clear that the major players are now racing to add both more data and more structure to these simulations in order to fend off sharp-witted competitors and amass more resources, a very life-like behavior indeed.

Alvis points out Wolfram Alpha as a particularly interesting example of an application of a subset of available information which, although initially a simulation, has the ability to lead to the generation of new knowledge. Wikipedia is another example. In a comment, I add that, along similar lines, Facebook is a simulated social interaction environment which enables massive amounts of real social interactions, many of a a wholly novel kind; e.g., “Jeff has thrown a sheep at you.”

Alvis explains that all this simulating we’re doing now has deep roots:

My personal take on the matter…is that as organisms evolve and life’s complexity increases, new species with brains capable of greater quantification and abstraction (simulation!) emerge at a regular clip. Over time, these organisms discover ways to expand their knowledge by communicating (actively or passively) information to one another and letting the network manage their quantifications and decisions. Then, eventually, the higher-level organisms figure out how to extend their knowledge into the environment through technology that allows them to communicate and retrieve it more easily than before. This is accomplished directly through technologies like language, writing, or classical maps, and indirectly through the hard-technologies like spears, paint, and paper that critically support knowledge externalization.

In other words, I believe that simulation plays a critical role in not only the evolution and development of the human species, but also of all forms of life on this planet and probably in our known universe (as suggested by recent findings that physical matter millions of light years distant closely resembles our own).

Whoa, cosmic. So simulation = evolutionary success. Can that be right? In his current piece on expanding human intelligence in The Atlantic, Jamais Cascio describes how homo sapiens staged a massive comeback from near extinction 74,000 years ago:

How did we cope? By getting smarter. The neuro­physi­ol­ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition—including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead—evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence. According to Calvin, the reason we survived is that our brains changed to meet the challenge: we transformed the ability to target a moving animal with a thrown rock into a capability for foresight and long-term planning. In the process, we may have developed syntax and formal structure from our simple language.

As a species, and as individuals, we began to create better and better conceptual maps of the world around us and to make better use of those maps. We got better at simulating.It should be obvious that better simulation amounts to better evolutionary success — just take out the word “evolutionary,” and consider some examples:

– Two athletes of roughly equal physical ability are pitted against each other. One is much better than the other at modeling various game scenarios.

– Two sales people of similar temperament and experience are competing in the same territory selling virtually identical products. One of them struggles with understanding the inner workings of the organizations that make up the potential customer base; the other seems to have a knack for sussing out these companies’ internal dynamics.

–Two students with more or less equal academic records are preparing for a standardized test. Both study the same basic materials in preparation for the test. Additionally, one of them gets access to earlier versions of the test and goes through several practice rounds of test-taking before taking the actual test.

Now those are some pretty contrived examples and, of course, there would be other factors in any of these scenarios, but still I think it’s safe to say who has the advantage in each of those scenarios. I am especially fond of the third one because the student doesn’t have an innate advantage where it comes to doing simulations; he or she simply takes advantage of the best simulations available.

So if simulation has always been positively correlated with human survival and human success, shouldn’t the fact that we are in the midst of a massive increase in the number of ways we simulate the world — as well as the quality of those simulations — speak well for our future? Or maybe it speaks well only for the future of those performing the simulations, or who have access to them. But then again, many of these new simulation tools are widely distributed and available to almost anyone.

  • MDarling

    “…midst of a massive increase in the number of ways we simulate the world…”

    The age of rapidly improving and increasing simulations.
    Certain;y it favors those with access to the simulations.
    And once the AGI starts simulating on it’s own- as posted here previously – well, then the benefit is to the AGI.